Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NZ Post Fiction Award winner The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley - reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

There’s been some debate recently about why international titles continue to outsell local fiction in New Zealand. In truth it may be an unfair comparison. It’s not that there’s a shortage of good writing here, but a home-grown novel doesn’t have a show of competing against a juggernaut like say the Stieg Larsson trilogy or the latest Jodi Picoult no matter how wonderful it is.
Winning a literary award is one of the things that authors and publishers hope will strengthen a book’s sales. In the spirit of helping that process along I decided this week I’d focus on recent NZ Post Fiction Award winner The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, $40).
Fearnley is a South Island author who in the past hasn’t drawn the same attention as shinier, grabbier Auckland writers. Her work is exquisite and she deserves this accolade. But does the book have what it takes to be popular with readers?

The Hut Builder is about the making of a poet. Boden Black is a butcher’s son growing up in post-war Fairlie. His family is “lopsided with sorrow” as a result of his older twin brothers dying in the sinking of a Navy vessel. Boden is all that his parents have left and yet, desperate to escape the suffocating grief of the household, he moves in with a neighbouring family. It’s on a trip with them to the Mackenzie Basin that he has an epiphany, feeling the first stirrings of poetry as he struggles to find words powerful enough to describe the beauty of what he sees.
Boden grows up to join the family business but all the most vital moments in his life are connected to this landscape, in particular the period spent helping a group of mountaineers build a hut up on Mt Cook. Trapped by storms in an ice cave in the company of the enigmatic Walter he has a coming of age both as a man and a poet. It’s a terrifying climb up to the Middle Peak in the company of Edmund Hillary and Harry Ayres that leads him to compose a poem called Three Days At Least that later becomes a famous Kiwi classic. But despite his agility with words Boden remains an emotionally reserved man locked into the life ordained for him.
Much about this book is terrific. The first chapter is a cracker, tautly and brilliantly written. The weaving of real-life figures into the fictional narrative is seamless. The whole story sings with Fearnley’s great love for the places it’s set, for the vast plains of tussock, the high peaks and hilltops, the land and the sky. Her writing is poetic and honest, the character of Boden an interesting creation. And in parts it’s an extremely poignant story – in particular those concerning Boden’s relationship with his father and his unsettling discoveries about his past.
With some local fiction – while it may be beautifully crafted and thoughtful - I do get the sense it’s been written for the pleasure and indulgence of the author rather than the reader and perhaps that could be a reason we tend to buy less of it. But I never got that feeling with The Hut Builder. Clearly Fearnley has savoured writing it but she hasn’t shut out the reader in the process.
It’s a compelling story woven around fragments of our mountaineering history, reflecting its author’s own love of words and all they can express. I hope the NZ Post fiction award helps it find all the readers it deserves.

Nicky Pellegrino is a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction, The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009, Recipe for Life was published in April, 2010, while her latestThe Villa Girls, was published in April this year.

She is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 21 August, 2011


Alan Hudson said...

And unfortunately despite being NZ fiction book of the year it sold about 100 copies in total last week.

Bookman Beattie said...

I would have thought that not too bad seeing it was published in 2010.

Andrew said...

I sensed considerable 'reservation' in Ms Pellegrino's review but no indication as to what caused this tone. I know it is risky for one writer to review another, especially when the one being reviewed has just won NZ's top fiction prize, but in order for a review to be helpful to readers, I believe we have to understand what the reviewer's reservations are, i.e. the process of evaluation must comprise both the positive and the negative of the novel.

I'll read it, because a friend of mine who is in a book group loved it, but sadly, she said that the majority of others in her book group did not, describing it as "boring." This echoes Ms Pellegrino's tone of reservation, but without data as to what generated the tone for her, I would, without my friend's endorsement, be hesitating to give the book a go myself.

John McIntyre said...

Read it Andrew.
It is a great story, gently paced for sure, but certainly not boring. Boden is portrayed as a man of growing depth and grace, despite, or because of his rural small town upbringing.
It is only in the last generation and a half ago that the population has become citified, and this story reflects the era before that drift.
It is nuanced and layered, and weaves into the story a number of significant social and political movements in New Zealand history.
I read it last year, it resonate then and it has stayed with me since.
I was delighted it won the award, but it deserves to be widely read just as much.

nickyp said...

I only ever review books I've enjoyed on my Herald on Sunday column. Yes this is partly because I'm a writer and I know how much effort has gone into any book but it's mostly down to the fact I only have a page at most and my brief is to use it to highlight books that are worth reading rather than to show off how cleverly I can eviscerate a piece of work (quite cleverly I imagine). If I have reservations I will say so....I'm not relentlessly positive. The Hut Builder unfolds at a relatively gentle pace..perhaps some readers will find that boring but I thought it worked. My reservation is probably more about the wider NZ fiction scene but for reasons that I'm not going into here!